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Filmmakers Look Behind Hollywood’s Lens on Race

A group of activist filmmakers combat racism and make change inside and outside Tinseltown.

Awards season is upon us; Golden Globe nominations were just announced, and Oscar nominations are coming next. But not even a dozen doctoral dissertations could do justice to the vexed subject of how people of color are represented in Hollywood films. The images projected in American movies have mainly served up the distortion of funhouse mirrors, along with the occasional—and surprising—accurate reflection. The good, the bad, and the downright ugly have affected audiences in such complicated ways that it may be necessary to turn to filmmakers themselves for help in sorting them out—specifically, to documentary moviemakers who are uniquely able to turn their medium’s gaze on itself.

One such artist, Arthur Dong, is the director of Hollywood Chinese, a delectable and provocative slice of film history that alternates movie clips with comments from actors such as Nancy Kwan, Lisa Lu, and B.D. Wong; from writers such as David Henry Hwang and Amy Tan; and from directors such as Justin Lin and Ang Lee. Their voices and others form a chorus offering a nuanced picture of the Chinese American experience of Hollywood, in front of the camera, behind it, or in the audience. (Readers may also be interested in Jeff Adachi’s The Slanted Screen, a critical examination of the representation of Asian-American men in film.)

“Sometimes I think of myself as a wolf in sheep’s clothing when I craft my films,” Dong says. “What is Hollywood Chinese about? Really, it’s about racism, and how race relations work or don’t work in this country. That’s the core message. But I’m also a film lover, and I made it for other film lovers—and that’s the way I put the sheep over the wolf.”

Race and racism, of course, have been on the screen since movies began. As shown in the recently produced Reel Injun, a documentary by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond that’s currently making its way in theaters, inventor Thomas Edison filmed Native American Pueblo ceremonies in the 1890s. Since then, in a medium awash with false representations, truth has sometimes risen to the screen’s surface, however infrequently.

At the same time, historians such as Neal Gabler have suggested the extent to which the urge for racial and ethnic erasure is inscribed in the DNA of Hollywood movies, perhaps especially in the early talkies. In his book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, Gabler shows that, although immigrant Jews owned seven of the eight major studios during the 1930s, “something drove the young Hollywood Jews to a ferocious, even pathological, embrace of America” in which Jewish representation all but vanished from the screen in favor of characters who were average (WASP) everymen. This is in part, of course, an economic imperative attributable to the quest for commercial success, but the upshot has been a toxic brew of too few images of minorities in the first place and too much distortion in those images that were manufactured. Under such a regime, images of the “other” function primarily to define, justify, and consolidate majority identity.

Seeing the Gray

Gray areas proliferate. Many representations are negative on one hand and positive on the other. For Arthur Dong and others, the movies in the Charlie Chan series fall into this twilight category.

“In the context of the time,” Dong says, “to have a main character who’s smarter than a white guy is pretty radical. Chan is a Chinese character respected by everyone around him except for the racists. All his kids are as American as apple pie. But I don’t back off from the fact that Charlie Chan also had negative effects.” Chan became a mostly positive stereotype, but all stereotypes are ultimately reductive and hence problematic.

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